I was late to the global literary sensation that are the novels of Elena Ferrante. When most everyone I knew was enjoying the Neapolitan quartet and Ferrante’s other fictions, marveling especially at the writer’s dazzling ability to inhabit the inner lives of women and the complicated, enduring friendships between them, I was immersed in sturdy nonfiction books with titles like “The Color Of Law,” “Code of the Street,” and “Stuck in Place.”
For the balance of the decade when Ferrante’s stories were claiming the public imagination, I’d been in my childhood hometown, New Haven, researching, reporting, and writing about a story that had seized mine: a grandfather’s murder on a New Haven side street in a post-industrial neighborhood called Newhallville, not far from Yale University; a wrongful conviction for the crime; and the effects on young people who live in poverty and at close proximity to wealth and opportunity. I wanted to know: Does inequality contribute to violence?
The geometry of inequality in America’s cities ensures that there are vast disparities in how residents in adjacent communities live. Consider the juxtaposition of elite colleges and graduate schools like Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard Medical School with the poor neighborhoods at their campuses’ edge. The purpose of those schools is a fulfilling future for graduates. Young people I came to know in Newhallville were acutely aware of this gulf between others having so much to look forward to while they had so little. That’s because right above them were the slate roofs and Gothic towers representing the very picture of bright American opportunity. And just up a hill and across a border street named Prospect, these young people can see the large houses of their city’s most prosperous, surrounded by tranquil gardens and topiary, both nearby and a world away.
Downslope, young men I met in Newhallville had no such sense of possibility. They said they felt unprotected, afraid, and socially impotent. Their conviction that their predicaments were of no concern to the rest of the city had led some to acquire guns. Armed, they could protect themselves. They could also gain prestige as intimidators. A Newhallville man who went to prison for murder as a teenager said that growing up in an isolated neighborhood devoid of paths to fulfilling opportunity meant: “We have no sovereignty. That’s why we get in the streets.”
Another young man described a fatalistic progression: “There’s a you-don’t-give-a-f— anymore. Shoot somebody, it’s nothing.” There was a kind of evanescent power in the notoriety of being a person who rounded a corner and watched everyone scatter before him.
Even in the country’s most dangerous neighborhoods, most people aren’t involved in “the violence.” But as with shark attacks in beach communities, it doesn’t take many episodes to spread terror. In Newhallville, there was nothing inevitable about who broke violent. A common profile involved fragile young men who’d been exposed to violence and other serious traumas at a young age, who felt their lives and abilities weren’t valued. This created in them an emptiness of spirit, feelings of shame, hostility, and anomie that, over time, wore their empathy away. This was the case in the 2006 murder of an elderly man in Newhallville named Herbert “Pete” Fields Jr.
Fields’s likely killer was a Newhallville teenager who had been a talented, engaged high school student-athlete who had nevertheless been haunted by the unexplained childhood loss of a parent. Coupled with a growing fear of being shot on the way to school, the boy’s despair about his life prospects sent him deep into drug use and committing crimes with a gun — before being shot to death himself. Another Newhallville teen was convicted of Fields’s murder and sentenced to 38 years in prison before being exonerated after serving nine years.
After eight years, my book about the colliding lives and tragedies in Newhallville, “The Other Side of Prospect,” was at last complete. Awaiting me then was a visit to far-off Italy — through the novels of Ferrante. It was with the extra anticipation of a pleasure long self-denied that I began to read “My Brilliant Friend,” the first volume of her Neapolitan quartet.
Near the beginning, I encountered this: “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence . . . . We grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.”
Again and again as I read Ferrante, I had the experience of encountering passages that sparked my uneasy recognition.
That Ferrante should be preoccupied with the harsh complications of city life was not how anyone had described her books to me. But as I kept on with the quartet, I was astonished at how closely Ferrante’s depiction of poverty and violence matched the features of what I’d been exploring in New Haven. Throughout the novels, the portrait of mid-20th century Naples, when the quartet begins, and its divided neighborhoods echoed the inequality in today’s American cities.
A characteristic of Ferrante’s Naples across generations, as she writes, is “the widespread violence of the neighborhood,” where, in the degraded squalor of poverty, chaos and filth, “hatreds lasting months, years, and offenses and insults,” young men are sorted between the intimidators and the intimidated. When a canning factory closes down, new skyscrapers go up, but in the old neighborhood, the beatings continue.
This generational neighborhood poverty tracked with the post-industrial decline that had beleaguered Newhallville. Beginning in the mid-19th century, the Newhall carriage factory, followed by the Winchester gun factory, had been a source of uplift for under-educated and unskilled workers — waves of Irish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants and then Black Southerners who’d come North during the Great Migration had found well-enough-paying industrial jobs. Many had become homeowners. Some had moved up and out, sent their kids to college. That’s a common American narrative. So is what happened next. As Winchester’s sales declined and its machine lofts quieted in the 1970s, the neighborhood grew poor, isolated, segregated, and dangerous. Local kids now felt anxiety just walking around the neighborhood where they were stuck in place.
Similarly, the young people in Ferrante’s fictionalized neighborhoods feel contaminated by the humiliations of poverty; the educational backwardness of their parents; bigoted attitudes toward poor, darker-skinned Southern Italians; and the daily stresses of navigating both the omnipresent sidewalk dangers and the intractable neighborhood dictum that says you are where you come from and will only ever be that.
“Was it possible,” wonders the novels’ narrator, Elena “Lenù” Greco, “that only our neighborhood was filled with conflicts and violence, while the rest of the city was radiant, benevolent?” Eventually, crossing “a border” into a wealthier section of Naples, wearing her meager wardrobe and many-times resoled shoes, Lenù experiences “a sort of humiliating difference . . . . We were not perceptible. Or not interesting . . . . Of this we were all aware.” The dynamic helps her understand that “there was something malevolent in the inequality.”
For the “neglected” young men Lenù grows up with, “whom no institution cares about,” the rejection stings in such a way that “When they get angry they destroy everything.” Unlike these men, Lenù is the rare neighborhood exception who goes away to a university, on scholarship. There, leading her new life, one day Lenù herself is falsely accused of theft by another student. Instinctively, she believes she’s been denounced because of where she comes from. Resentment surges through Lenù, and it’s the gifted university student who now resorts to “the way I had grown up,” with aggressive insults in the most vulgar neighborhood dialect and a torrent of blows.
“The anxious pleasure of violence,” Lenù will later explain, fulfills the visceral need “to strike fear into those who wish to strike fear into you.” It’s briefly exhilarating, ultimately terrifying, and then comes the sound of the police siren. The four Naples books conclude with a meditation on violence so bleakly similar to what I’d heard in Newhallville, I caught my breath as I read it. Lenù and her lifelong friend Raffaella (“Lila”) Cerullo are talking and, Lenù recounts, “We believed . . . that it was a feature of the neighborhood. We had it around us from birth, it brushed up against us, touched us all our lives.”
Nicholas Dawidoff’s “The Other Side of Prospect” is a finalist for the New York Public Library’s and the American Bar Association’s book prizes. He will speak at the Cambridge Public Library at 6:30 pm on May 4.